Fantasy Horror Mystery halloween ghosts samhain Irish Mythology

Carrying the News for a Dead Paperboy

By James Van Pelt
Sep 18, 2019 · 6,784 words · 25 minutes

Climbing up from ocean

Photo by Daniel Jensen via Unsplash.

From the author: October and Halloween are just around the corner. You can feel it in the evening breeze that's a little cooler, and there's a tone shift in the rustling of leaves as they begin the change from summer green to autumn colors. And, of course, the ghosts are waking, as they do in this story. Their night to walk freely is coming.


How Bragg got started in it, I’ll never know, but I felt the green fog that surrounded him; I knew what interested him.  It’s what gave me a chance.

My closest encounter came when he backed his ‘59 Buick out of the driveway and hit my bike.  It was my fault, you see, that my bike was there.  It didn’t have anything to do with him not looking where he was going, not that I think he could see through his sunglasses or his cloud of cigarette smoke, so maybe it was my fault, but BANG, my bike goes flat and all the other paperboys look at it, thinking I’m sure, thank God it wasn’t THEIR bike in Bragg’s way.

He steps out of the car, doesn’t even look to see if he’s dented his bumper, then grabs the front of my shirt and pins me to the chain link fence.  It’s a tall fence, so my feet are maybe a yard off the ground.  I can hardly breathe because his fist tightens my shirt up around my neck, and the fence gouges by back.  The greenness that is him engulfs me.  Not an ordinary grass green, but bad cold snot green, smelling damp and mangled, like leaves torn to bits and smeared into pulp.

Mom sighed when I took the paper route job.  “You’re getting so big,” she said, but I wasn’t big enough to hold off Bragg.  My dad left before I was old enough to teach me how to defend myself.  Bragg picks me up and I feel six again.

“You’re a frickin’ moron, Scotty,” he says, blowing his cigarette/bratwurst breath in my face.  He had to be really upset because Bragg usually cursed in the most interesting way I’d ever heard.  Once he said in his nasty Irish brogue to a paperboy who’d bumped him, “May the seven terriers of hell sit on the spool of your breast and bark in your soul-case.” 

You don’t hear that every day.                                                                      

He lets me go.  He doesn’t throw me; he just releases his grip, so I drop straight down.  My knees buckle, and I’m face to face with the cement. 

The other paperboys stand in a half circle, watching what I’ll do.  Of course they think I’ll do nothing.  Bragg is three years older than the rest of us; he drives a car, for crying out loud, and he’s been shaving since he was five I guess.  Even so, I’d done a lot of reading, and I’d thought about what I’d do if Bragg ever came at me.

It doesn’t do any good, you know, the futile gesture, but I’ve always liked the idea of one.  If Bragg was going to stomp my head for denting his bumper with my bike, I wanted to take a shot, so I roll over on my back and say, “Go scriosa an diabhal do chroi,” which is Irish for “May the devil destroy your heart.”  I’d been practicing the pronunciation for weeks.  Mom told me my smart mouth would get me in trouble.

He takes a step back.  My victory is in his one-step retreat, but it only lasts a second.  The afternoon sun glares behind his head, making his face as dark as a cave, then he crouches beside me.  I’m in his green fog again.  In a low voice he says, “I’d squash you like a kitten, but I’d rather wait ‘til Samhain.  Be guarding your backside asswipe.  I know your house.” 

Mom made me watch Brigadoon with her once.  We watched a lot of movies together on Friday or Saturday nights.  I’m pretty much all she has. Anyway, I thought Brigadoon was a stupid story–just when things got interesting, they started singing and dancing–but I liked the soft, romantic Celtic talk.  Bragg didn’t sound anything like that.  His accent made me think of IRA terrorists bombing school busses, or even darker creatures, older beings with long, crusty knives and squishy things in pouches around their necks, which is not something I can tell my mom.  She’s an atheist.  Very practical.  She thought A Miracle on 34th Street was a sad movie because Maureen O’Hara’s character had to admit Santa was real.  She teaches mythology at the college, so she doesn’t believe anything.  She said once, “I’ll believe when I see a god’s fingerprint on creation.”  I don’t know about church, but I do know about Samhain.  It’s what we call Halloween now, and there’s a lot more to it than trick-or-treating, at least as far as Bragg is concerned.

So he leaves me lying on the cement, puts his leg over his big black bike he keeps at the paper shack.  The joints have been welded so many times it looks lumpy and organic.  He pedals toward his route, leaving his car parked on top of my bike.  We watch him roll away, the grey bags filled with papers bumping against his front wheel.  Then he turns a corner and is gone.

“Scotty, you’re going to need a good disguise the next time you see him,” says Mike, my best friend.

It is just another day at the paper shack, the last normal one for me, only I don’t know it.  You see, after his route is done, Bragg picks up a friend for an evening of hell raising, and they decide they want some girls along.  So they go to this house where these two sisters live–one’s a sophomore and the other’s a freshman at the high school–except the girls’ brother is there, and he doesn’t want his sisters dating Bragg and his buddy.  There’s an argument, I hear later; one-fingered salutes are exchanged, and then Bragg and his friend give up.  They climb into their car and drive off.  Only the brother is still mad, so he reaches into a closet next to his front door, pulls out a deer rifle, then takes a shot at Bragg’s car.  The bullet goes through the trunk, through the back seat, through the front seat, through Bragg and out the windshield.

The car goes off the road, onto a guy’s yard, knocking down a mailbox, coming to rest in a thick privet hedge.

Bragg’s dead.

The next afternoon, before the papers are delivered, Mike says, “Let’s see the body.”

I lean on my bike, trying to act cool, but my insides shiver.  “Why’d we want to do that?”  The clouds hang low.  Rain has fallen off and on all afternoon.

Mike looks at me like I’m a weird bug.  “I’ve never seen a dead person before.  You chicken?”

Which I’m not, not of a dead body, anyway, but it’s Bragg’s dead body.  I straighten up “If you think we can get in, let’s go.”

The mortuary is across the street, next to the White Spot Café.  Nothing like a little formaldehyde to make your food taste good, I figure.

Mike leads the five of us through the mortuary’s double doors.  The foyer is warm and bright compared to the overcast.  Our coats smell of wet street and mushy leaves.  A receptionist sitting at a desk by the door says, “Can you boys sign the bereaved book?”  Turns out there are four corpses for viewing, and we sign the wrong page.  She leads us to one of the doors in the hallway beyond her desk.

An old woman lies in the coffin.  Fancy lace almost buries her hands that are crossed on her stomach.  The room reeks like a million flowers decided to die there.  We back out.  I talk to the receptionist to explain that we wanted the Bragg viewing.  She snaps a pencil as if it’s our fault she didn’t ask who we came to see.

A minute later I’m standing behind Mike and the gang as they file past Bragg’s coffin.  His hands are across his stomach too.  Mike looks back at me, then at the corpse.  Everyone is so quiet.  I’m thinking that I can turn around right then, walk down the little hallway and out of the mortuary.  There’s no reason to see him.  I didn’t like him when he was alive.  The flower smell coats my throat.  If I put my finger in my mouth, I figure I could swab it out.

“Come on,” Mike whispers.  Without deciding too, I take a step forward.  Bragg’s nose and cheeks come into view.  He’s facing straight up.  It’s unnatural how square his shoulders are, how perfectly aligned his head is.  Whenever I see someone sleeping, their head tilts a little to one side or the other, but Bragg’s head is locked into a perfect line with his neck.  Then I’m beside the coffin, my hand brushing the polished wood.  Bragg’s face is smooth, his cheeks flush, and I realize he’s wearing makeup. 

I bump into Mike, who isn’t moving.  “Looks like a mask,” he says.

Bragg is only a foot away.  His red painted lips don’t look human at all.  I’m thinking about the reading I’d been doing, the Irish reading, so I could counter Bragg.  It’s not just leprechauns, you know.  Nasties filled Bragg’s world: banshees, trolls, devil dogs, Fomorians and the bad half of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the gods of old Ireland.  I’d been watching Bragg’s backyard from my bedroom window for a year.  I watched him dig his own sidhe, a fairy mound to hide in, and he’d built a henge out of sawed off sections of telephone poles he’d cemented upright into holes and six-inch beams to top them that formed a circle fifteen feet across, and then, last Halloween, when I first started getting really scared, I watched him slaughter Mrs. Wisnewski’s Pekinese.  The moon had been full, and my binoculars saw it all: his naked pale chest, the hunting knife, the little yippy dog he’d tied to a picnic table bench.

The knife plunged, and out of the wound flowed the green fog.  It had a shape, it did, for a second, a head and eyes, and it towered over him.  Then it turned and looked at me, straight through my binoculars.  I whimpered, but kept watching.  Bragg chanted.  From a hundred yards away, I could hear him.  The green shape bent.  It surrounded him.  Became him.  Weeks of reading later, I decided Bragg must be a Druid warlock, if there ever was such a thing.  There was the Irish accent he picked up after that, for one thing, and the oaks that grew so fast he planted around Scrap Wood Henge, and the interesting curses.  Bragg moved in a different reality.

Mike leans over the coffin.  I almost reach out to hold him back, but my hands quiver in paralysis behind me.  Mike whispers, “Do you think they plugged it?”  I half expect Bragg to sit up, to seize Mike by the throat.

“What?” I say.  The buzz of our voices is too loud in the room.

“Do you think they plugged it, or . . . you know . . . left it?”

Bragg’s jacket is taut across his chest.  I figure they didn’t put makeup under his clothes.  What did they do with the bullet hole?

I look around the room.  It’s not a big room.  Twenty chairs face the coffin,  lined up in five rows.  Flowers fill the stands at the end of each row.  The rest of the boys stand back, waiting their turn.  I think about my mom.  She’d call me silly for being afraid.  “It’s superstition, Scotty,” she’d say to me.  “Dead people are dead, and there’s no such things as ghosts.”  That’s not what makes my hands stop trembling, though, or slows my breathing.  I know what it is: no green fog.  I’m not scared anymore.  The dead flowers stink just as bad, and other odors swim underneath: alcohol, peppermint, ammonia, and a suspicion of corpse.  I wrinkle my nose, but the room is as still and sterile as a hospital sink.  Everything is ordinary.  Bizarre and gruesome, but ordinary.  That’s when I know that Bragg isn’t in the building.  I giggle.

Mike gasps.  The boys behind me whisper for a second.

“What?” he says to me.

“The suit,” I say.  “Doesn’t Bragg look silly in a suit?”

When we get back to the paper shack, the route manager, Mr. Banion, tells me how sad he is that Bragg’s dead, seeing as he and I were neighbors and practically brothers in his way of understanding things, but that the papers have to be delivered anyway, and that I’d be taking Bragg’s route until Banion could hire another paperboy.  The thing is, though, he says, is that Bragg’s subscription list is at his house, and I need to go get it.  Bragg’s mom, god bless her sorrowing soul, he says, has the list, so I have to pick it up.

She takes forever to answer after I knock.  I turn to go down the steps when the door opens, and she’s standing there with a hankie in one hand and the subscription list in another.  She’s younger than my mom, skinnier, and she has a Harley Davidson tattoo on her forearm, but I’m not really looking.  What I want is to get off her porch fast.  She weaves a little, then braces herself against the door.  “He was a good boy,” she says from behind the handkerchief.  “You were one of his friends, weren’t you?”

I’m not sure how to answer.  In my memory I see Mrs. Wisnewski’s dog in the moonlight before the air turned green, but I also see Bragg’s mom, and she’s just a regular person, despite the tattoo, and I think that what she wants is a hug, or something.

“We weren’t very close,” I say.

She looks past me to the street, her lips parted, her eyes fixed and blank.  Maybe she pictures him in her mind’s eye, riding his bike, or coming up the street in his awful Buick.  Finally she says, “He was so looking forward to Samhain.”

My skin goes cold.  “That’s the same as Halloween, isn’t it?” I offer, because the silence unnerves me.

She is still holding the subscription list and staring over my head.  The bottoms of her eyes are red-rimmed.  “Better than Halloween, he told me.  End of the warm season.  Doors open, he said.”

From somewhere in the house a voice yells, “Who you got out there, Ida?”

She says, sort of dreamily, “He was smart, studying all the time.  Studying Ireland.  Obsessive about it.  Writing things down.  Working in the backyard.”  She pauses.  “He was a good boy.”

For a second I think about Grendel’s mother, then I realize Bragg’s mom doesn’t have an Irish accent, and neither does the voice from the house.

She doesn’t look at me, even when I pluck the list from her hand.  When I get to the street, I glance back, and she still stands on the porch, her hankie dangling.

Bragg’s route winds through blocks and blocks of single-story ranch-style houses.  I ride slowly, one hand holding the handlebars and the subscription list, while the other dips into the bags that hang on both sides of the bike’s front wheel.  A rubber-banded paper isn’t aerodynamic, but with the proper flip, it turns into a propellor, flying its curved path to a porch.  I take aim with the next one, cock my wrist, let it go.  A long curve.  Whap!  It hits the step below the door, beyond the wet sidewalk, a perfect throw.

The last color fades from the clouds on the horizon where the sun manages to peek through as I pedal up the street.  I delivered my route already, and it took a couple hours.  Hopefully the light will last until I get the last papers on his route done.  I squint to read the addresses on the houses, then double-check the writing on his subscription list.  Folks have pumpkins on their porch steps.  Happy Halloween signs glow in some of the windows.

I hurl another paper, miss the porch, but hit dry ground beneath a tree.  Close enough, I figure. The skin on my back prickles.  Yesterday Bragg delivered this route.  He threw a paper at the same house, and now I’m riding my bike in the same space he occupied.  Except for the time difference, we’re together.  Did his paper go farther?  What was he thinking when he tossed it?  I glance behind me, sure for a second that his Buick, with its big, rounded bumpers is right there, its engine rumbling, and the tires mashing the pavement as he rolls toward me, one arm hanging out the window, a cigarette dangling.  But the road is empty.  On the corner, a street light buzzes before flickering into life.

I sling the last paper.  It slides to a stop against the house under an overhang.  End of the month.  I have to collect everyone’s subscriptions.  Four-and-a-half bucks to have the paper delivered to your door every day.  Mr. Banion had given me Bragg’s billing book.  I walk up to the first door, a stranger’s door, and ring the bell.  The lady gives me a five and takes the change without glancing at me.  I wonder how long she’d been a subscriber.  Did she even know what he looked like?  For a second, I’m almost sorry he’s not there.

At the second house, an old man on a walker answers the door.  He squints at me after he hands me a check.  “Wait a second, son,” he says, bracing his hip against the walker while he digs into his wallet.  He drops four quarters into my hand.  “You done real good this month.”

I keep my mouth shut.  I didn’t do anything, but I drop the weight of payment for a dead paperboy in my pocket.

At the sidewalk I hold up his billing book to the streetlight.  Already it’s gone dark and the wind shakes the branches in the trees along the street.  Dinner smells mix with wet leaves.  I think I might collect the first half of Bragg’s route, then save the rest of it until Saturday.  Misty shapes swirl from the wet asphalt under the streetlight.  It’ll be foggy later.  For a second I forget about Halloween on Friday and Samhain, which is where the holiday came from, and watch the moist air made visible by the wind and light and cold.  It’s ghostly and creepy, a little melancholy and beautiful.  I even forget that Bragg said, “I know your house,” but a creaking sound comes toward me from the unlit end of the street.  It’s a bike, a paperboy’s bike by the sound.  The chain strains against the gears, and the tires grind against the ground.  There’s a slap as a paper hits cement.  Someone’s delivering papers in the dark.  Maybe Mr. Banion forgot he’d sent me to  do the route, I think, but my heart races in my chest.  None of the houses on this street have lit addresses.  You can’t deliver in the dark if you don’t know the subscribers, but the bike comes on.  Another paper whirls through the air to flop onto a porch.  My mouth has no spit in it.

A bike swims into the light toward me.  Front tire and paper bags visible first, then the paperboy, skinny and white.  He pedals by, no eyes in the empty sockets.  No clothes covering the bones of his arms.  The skeleton’s hand dips into the bag, comes up with another paper, and flings it at the old man’s house.  I duck as it goes by.  The bike hits a bump.  The bones clack together like dice in a cup.  The welds on the bike are lumpy and big.  It’s Bragg’s bike.

My knees go loose, and I think that it can see the four-quarter tip that doesn’t belong to me in my pocket, but it rides on until it’s under the streetlight among the foggy forms, where becomes mist itself and disappears.  Did I imagine it?  I don’t think so.  Ghosts are ghosts, no matter what day of the year it is.

Tomorrow is Friday, October 31.  Halloween and Samhain, when the ghosts have their powers behind them, when the bigger evils are let loose.  Bragg knows my house.  He knows my house and he hates me.

Mike says, “So, what are you going to do?”

I grip the phone tightly against my ear.  The lights in my room are out.  Through my open bedroom window the full moon pours down on Bragg’s slice of Ireland, little bits of fog creeping along the ground through the oak he’d planted in the spring that weren’t any higher than my waist then but reach at least to the top of his makeshift henge ten feet up now, and although the leaves fell off them a week ago the branches seem muscular, bulging at the joints like the welds on Bragg’s bike.  The moon transforms everything into blacks and white.  Straight shadows, alive and dark and writhing in the mist.  I think of Bragg lying in his coffin.  Not dead, though.  Just gone for a bit.

“I’m reading,” I say.  “Samhain is the one night of the year when the other world becomes visible to mortals, and evil is allowed to come out.  I’ve learned a lot about it, but not much about what to do to protect myself.  One of the books says people put out the fires in their homes and then relit them from Druid bonfires lit on that night, or they slaughtered cattle.”

“That keeps away evil?”  Mike sounds like he’s trying not to laugh.  I’d laugh too, if I heard this from anyone else, but I’d seen what happened in Bragg’s yard.

The silence stretches for a while.  What I need is a hero, someone like Finn and his faithful hound, Bran, or a really mythic figure like Cúchulainn who single-handedly defended Ulster against the Connacht warriors of Medb and Ailill.  I need the Knights of the Red Branch.  I’ve tried telling these stories to Mike, and he gets all glassy-eyed.

He says, “I can come over, if you want.  My folks are playing bridge.  They won’t even know I’m gone.”

“No, I’ve got to figure this out for myself.  You don’t need to get involved.”

“Sure, Scotty,” he says.  “Is your mom going to let you go trick or treating this year?  My dad says he thinks I’m getting too old for it, but I figure as long as I’m not in high school, I ought to be able to.”

I close my eyes.  Did he hear anything I said?  The afterimage of Bragg’s moonlit yard moves across my vision like a negative.  “I’ve got bigger things on my mind.”

Mike says, “Yeah, I forgot.  Well, see ya’.”

The door to my room clicks, and I open my eyes just in time for the lights to come on.

“For crying out loud, Scotty,” says Mom.  “You’ve got the window wide open.”

She leans across me, the softness of her belly pressing against my arm as she pulls the window down.  Mom’s big.  When she sits on the edge of my bed, the springs complain.  “Did you get your homework done?”

This is one of her classic strategies when she wants to talk about something else.  I always have my homework done.

“Yeah, right after my paper route,” where, for all I know, a skeleton is still delivering the news.

“Reading again?”

A pile of books I’d gathered in the past year sits on the desk in front of the window: a pocket guide to Irish mythology and another one of Irish folk and fairy tales, and a third one called Mythologies by William Butler Yeats.  The rest were in a box under my desk.

She turns the Yeats book over in her hand.  “You’re just collecting these for fun, right?”  She clears her throat.  “You’re not getting involved in a cult or anything, are you, not like the Bragg boy?  You’ve been so distant lately.”  Behind her glasses, she looks concerned.

I watch her for a second, not sure what she’s asking, then I realize she doesn’t know that Bragg scared me.  She might even think we were friends.

“He wasn’t in a cult, really.”

Mom puts the Yeats’ book back on the desk.  My notebook is open with some of my writing about Stonehenge and druids and Samhain, and beside that are the binoculars I’d used to watch Bragg.  “He was into something.”

“That’s true,” I say.  If only she knew!  But she wouldn’t believe it if I told her.

“You going trick-or-treating this year?”

If I tell her no, she’ll want to know why, but the thought of going outside on Samhain, where Bragg can find me, makes me want to curl into a tiny ball.

She says, “I like Halloween.  It’s so . . .” she searches for a word, “. . . pagan.  They don’t even know its roots, the jack-o-lanterns, the masks.  The dead walking about.”  She smiles.  “Those smug born-agains in the P.T.A. have been trying to do away with it in the school for years.  Throw a little counter-religion at them and they turn into activists.  Of course, they wouldn’t mind hanging a cross or two in every classroom, the hypocrites.”

“Yeah, Mom,” I say.  I’ve heard this speech before.

She looks at the books again.  “I wish you’d spend this much time on your algebra.”  With a grunt, she stands up.  The bed slowly fills in the space where she’d been sitting.  “You’re a good boy, Scotty.  A little weird, but a good kid.  I’ll get the costumes out of the closet.  Nothing like a thorough scarefest to bug the Christian right.  Some of that good, old-timed religion.”  She laughs and runs her hand through my hair before going out.

The books don’t help.  I’d marked all the references to Samhain.  It was the same old stuff.  The spirits of those who’d died the proceeding year wandered the earth on that one night, and a passage opened for more evil things.  Bragg’s demon from last year, I figure.  Druids tried to ward them with offerings of food and drink, but I couldn’t see Bragg stopping to snack no matter what I set out.  They built wicker men to be burnt, but that wasn’t to stop the dead.  Lots of stories about evil spirits, fire-breathing goblins, and really creepy warnings, like if you hear footsteps behind you on Samhain, you shouldn’t look around because those are the footsteps of the dead, and if you look into their hollow eyes you will die.

Mom knocks this time as she comes in, carrying an armful of masks.  She dumps them on the bed.  “Everyone used to go trick-or-treating on Halloween when I was a girl.”  A clown mask slides off the quilt onto the floor.  She picks it up as she sorts through the pile.  A werewolf, a vampire, a Richard Nixon, an alien, a pirate.  “I always liked dressing up.”  She puts a mask on and turns to me.  It’s a princess face with a tiny crown that might fit a five-year-old.  “In old times folks wore masks on Halloween to scare off the dead.”

I think about Bragg lying in his coffin, face pointed toward a heaven he’d never see.  “What could be scarier than the dead, if they were walking around, I mean?”

Mom looks at me for a second, then she laughs so hard I think I’m going to have to call an ambulance.  After a bit she settles down and takes off her glasses to wipe the steam from them.  “Nobody has ever asked me that before.  That’s the most sensible thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about the costumes.”

I pick up the werewolf mask and put it on.  The latex tastes dusty.  “Maybe the masks weren’t to scare the dead, but to hide from them.”  Suddenly, that sounds very true to me, because the holiday rituals came from somewhere, from something.  Mom doesn’t believe in anything, but she didn’t see what I saw in Bragg’s backyard.  She didn’t hear his curses or take a breath of the green fog around him.  In the olden days, they believed, though.  And why would they wander around outside on a night that the dead were supposed to be loose?  Wouldn’t they go to a church or hide in their houses?  No!  Because if they did, the dead would know where to find them.  Instead, they put out the fires, disguised themselves and walked.  The dead knew where they lived, so they wouldn’t be home when they came.  I can feel Bragg’s hand on my collar.  His knuckles dig into my chest, and it’s all I can do to breathe.  He’s says, “I know your house.”

I know how to escape him.

It is only much later, as I lay in bed, half way between thinking and sleep, that I have a vision of the demon that is Bragg writhing out of his fresh grave, dragging its way down the streets, past the trick-or-treaters, like a zombie homing pigeon, stupidly moving until it turns on my driveway, shambles up the walk.  I’m gone in the vision, safely hidden behind my mask and the night, but the door opens in half speed.  Bragg’s on the porch.  Mom is standing at the door, a bowl of candy in hand.  I’m not home; Mom is.

I sit up.  The clock says 3:15.  All is still.  I can’t tell Mom she has to be out of the house on Halloween.  She won’t believe me.

School passes in a blur.  Some kids wear costumes, but the school forbid Halloween parties a couple years ago because some school board members don’t like “references to the occult.”  This year they’re fighting to get a five-minute time for “silent reflection” before our first class, which everyone knows is a sideways attempt to get prayer into the schools.  The kids who do wear costumes are lame.  No violent images.  No witches or ghosts.  I hear at the high school the tradition now is to dress as pimps or whores.  The school hates that too, but it won’t get you suspended like a vampire costume might.  Mom says it’s the better-real-sex-than-imagined-satan thinking she finds so twisted.  “What’s more likely,” she says, “that a kid will get a venereal disease or join a coven?”

By the time I sprint through the two routes, little kids are already on the street, their parents moving them from door to door.  It’s raining again.  Hoboes and firemen and cute tigers run across the lawns, their plastic pumpkins in hand.   Heading for home, I lean hard on the pedals, sending spray everywhere.  I figure I have only one chance to get her out of the house, but I have to play my cards just right.

Ten minutes later, I stand at the door wearing the werewolf mask and a heavy coat.  The air’s acquired a wintery bite, and the mist could turn to snow anytime.  Mom looks at me wistfully, a bowl of candy on the table beside her chair.

I wait.  For the longest time she doesn’t say anything.  The only way to get her to safety is if she talks.

Finally, though, when I’m just on the verge of telling her the truth, she says, “You’ll be too old to go out soon.  You’re getting so big.”

Generally I hate it when she talks like this. 

Two girls wearing rock-star outfits come up on the porch behind me.  I drop candy into their bags and they run off.  The streetlight at the corner turns on.

“Mom,” I say.  I’d been thinking how to word this all day.  “Do you remember when you used to take me trick-or-treating?”

She smiles.  “Sure, Scotty.  The first time you were so small, I pulled you in a wagon.”

In the dusk outside, voices cry out.  High laughter.  But it feels colder by the second.  Samhain is the end of the warm season, Bragg’s mother said.  What’s happening in the cemetery now?  Is there mist above his grave?  Has the fresh sod moved just a bit?  Shifted maybe or pulsed?  How much time do I have?

“Well, I figure I’ll be too big to go out next year.  I’ll be in high school.  So, I wondered, would you walk with me this year?”

Her eyes tear up.  “Scotty, that’s the nicest invite I’ve had in months.”  She leans forward as if to get out of the chair.  “Are you sure?  Wouldn’t you rather be with your friends?”

“They’re going to the mall,” I say.  My fingers are crossed behind my back for luck.

She waves her hand at the bowl by the door.  “What will we do with the candy?”

I exhale a sigh of relief.  “Leave it on the porch.  I’ll make a sign.”

By the time we’re out the door, night has fallen fully.  The mist is half rain, half snow, but there isn’t any wind.  As we head up the street, I can hear the trees dripping onto the carpet of leaves beneath them.

I let Mom lead the way.  “There ought to be a full moon,” she says.  I look up, blink against the mist.  The clouds are a deep grey blanket, alive with shadowy shapes.  We move several blocks.  Some of the houses are dark.  I don’t ring their doorbells.  Groups of kids pass us, some with larger figures in tow.  Parents I figure.  A car approaches, driving slowly, its round headlights cutting wide, white swaths in the wet air.  They’re not square like most new car headlights.  Bragg drove a ‘59 Buick.  I grab mom’s hand and pull her onto a lawn.  The car rumbles by, its driver leaning forward to look through his windshield.  Not Bragg.

“You’ll get your shoes muddy, Scotty.”

We walk for another hour.  Despite the chill, I’m sweating beneath my coat.  How long do I have to keep her out?  Does Samhain last until dawn, or is it over at midnight?  When do the doors close?  I check my watch: 9:45.  There are fewer kids now, but I wonder about them.  Maybe they’re not all kids.  A single figure walks toward us, no trick-or-treat bag.  It lurches.  I’m still holding Mom’s hand.

She says, “Ouch, you’re squeezing too hard.” 

The figure closes distance, its feet dragging on the sidewalk.  I hedge to the street side to give it room.

“Nice night,” Mom says when it passes.  The figure looks at her without speaking.  The distant streetlight barely gives illumination enough to cast a shadow, but I shiver anyway.  No glint of eyeballs.  No flesh over the teeth.

“Good costume,” I say after it’s past, my voice barely quivering.

We take a random path, climbing steadily.  I haven’t rung a doorbell for a while now.  We’re just walking, not saying much.  I hope Mom’s willing to stay out as long as I am.  She’s told me a million times that she wishes we did more stuff together.  Now we’re into an older neighborhood.  The trees are huge, and the sidewalks to the front doors are long.  I wonder how the paperboy gets the papers to the porch.  With a start, I realize we’re going toward the cemetery at the top of the hill, but we can’t turn around.  Any minute I expect Mom to say her legs are tired, or that we should head home.

She says instead, “I suppose if you lived your life by candlelight and campfires, when you didn’t know what lived in the woods outside your village, you would have to believe in gods.”

The temperature drops ten degrees while the slushy rain turns to ice crystals bouncing off my shoulders and the werewolf mask.  Bragg is appearing in our world.  I know it.  Where the sidewalk had been wet, it suddenly is slippery.  Ahead, at the end of the block, the cemetery gates loom.  Instead of the comforting drip from gutters and bushes and trees, the ice hisses against the grass.

I shouldn’t be able to see the cemetery gates.  No streetlights.  No moon.  Every house is dark, but I can see them anyway.  They’re backlit.  Somewhere behind them, a green glow permeates the fog.  We walk forward.  Mom is silent.

The green light coalesces, becomes a shoulder, then a head, rising above the gates, twenty-feet tall.  I want to weep.  Inside me, everything turns bitter and liquidy.  But there’s nothing to do.  No time to hide.  It’s too big.  It’s eyes are made for seeing in the dark.

I stop.  The demon Bragg swings his head from left to right, as if orienting himself.  Of course, the last thing Bragg knew, he was driving away from the girls’ house, laughing probably, probably planning to come back later, when the brother was gone.  He might be thinking, where am I now?

“Stop,” I say.  “Wait here for a minute, would you?  I always wanted to go into a cemetery by myself on Halloween.”

I can’t see Mom’s face.  “It’s just a plot of land,” she says.  “A nice lawn for playing football if it weren’t for the stones in it.”

“I know, but I want to give it a try.”

Without waiting for her reply, I let go of her hand and run forward.  She has to be safe.  There must be distance between us.  Ice slicks the cement, and I almost fall.  The demon strides toward me, huge eyes glowing green, the same sick green of Bragg’s cloud.  I know its smell, the slimy feel of it all around me.  “Be watching your backside, asswipe,” he’d said.  I feel like I’m six again.  I want to keep running toward it, but I can’t.  My legs go rubbery.  My fingers are freezing, so I jam them under my arms, and rather than fall, I sit on the icy grass beside the road and wait.  The creature grasps the top of the gates–I hear the wrought iron creak–then it steps over.

“You don’t want her,” I try to say.  My throat constricts.  Nothing comes out.  I adjust my mask.  If only there were some way to change my eyes.  Maybe it will know me by my eyes!  It takes a step.   The ground shakes.  Ice falls from tree branches behind me.  Then it is upon me.  Huge hands flat on the ground on either side.  Its face comes closer and closer.  Green-yellow eyes, like a pus-filled wound.  I look up, peer through my werewolf disguise, expect it to clap its hands together, smearing me into an explosion of pain.  He would break me first.  His touch would be fire and stinging nettles and broken glass.

But he doesn’t. 

He stands.  Takes two steps.  Bends down to look at Mom.  Straightens and walks down the hill before I can even scream.

Hissing like sand, the icy rain falls around me.  My chin sinks to my chest, the start of tears brimming in my eyes. 

A touch on my shoulder.  “Did you hurt yourself, Scotty?”  Mom helps me to my feet.  I hug her, which surprises her, I guess, because for a second she stands there.  Then she hugs me back.  She says, “I’m getting cold.  Are you ready to go home?”

We hear the sirens long before we reach our block.  Red and blue lights reflect off the houses on our street.  The streets are too slick for us to rush, so we have plenty of time to survey the scene as we get closer.

Fire engines pour water onto our house, but there aren’t many flames.  Just smoke.  The ends of the house are intact; the middle is gone, flat to the ground, broken timbers sticking up, water-shiny with splintery ends.

We make the cover of the National Enquirer, you know, with one of those pictures that look obviously doctored, like the face of the devil in the smoke plume above a burning building, except this one isn’t faked.  A news helicopter took it.  The fire engines are in the foreground, providing the light, casting shadows the right way.  Our house is in the picture’s center, the two walls still standing, and over the middle, the crushed middle, is what looks very much like a giant’s footprint.  Squashed it like a kitten, someone might say.  The footprint of a minor god.  In the heat of the morning sun, the outline vanished.

Mom’s talking about going to church.  “Just to investigate it,” she says.

Of course, I’ve been going for a year, secretly.

And I still carry Bragg’s route.  I just don’t carry it at night.

This story originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."